Friday, May 29, 2015

Large Scale Experiment Sampler Menu

When I am asked what I do, whether it be by a store clerk, a customs officer, or by a student, I have several options to describe my job. I am a volcanologist, I am a postdoc, I am a researcher, I am a geologist, I am a scientist, I pretend to be a professor, I am a doctor (of philosophy). In that list, the one that most people do not recognize is a postdoc (and I've had some entertaining responses to volcanologist). You can think about postdoctoral scholars/fellows as stuck in career limbo. We have finished our PhD's, but have not yet secured a permanent position. Some of us don't yet know what we want to be, or what sort of jobs are even feasible. The expectations of a postdoc may vary dramatically by subject, institution and funding situation. The things that are consistent are that postdocs are typically funded on short term contracts (even if those contracts get renewed regularly in some fields) and they have a boss who has more experience and more grant money than they do.

Postdocs can find themselves doing all sorts of strange things in the name of work. Such as sweeping a wall. You want to be a postdoc now don't you? Remember I also get to make my own volcanoes.

The best analogy I've ever heard for a postdoc is to compare them to a Sous Chef. They have all the formal training they are going to get. They just lack the experience, pay and permanence of the Executive Chef (or academia's case the Principle Investigator (PI) / Boss). In most cases the Sous Chef is expected to strike out on their own one day, and in the mean time they take on a lot of the responsibilities they will have later, under the eye of big chef who gets the big bucks, and big credit. There are lots of Executive Chefs and PI's who are very good at making sure the Postdoc / Sous gets not only training, but support, credit and constructive advice (I am fortunate enough to work for a very supportive PI).

But in the spirit of the Postdoc/Sous Chef comparison, I have prepared for you a menu of large scale experimental tools that are part of my job as a postdoc / volcanologist / experimentalist. It is really quite the fitting analogy as when we are planning an experiment we design our tool kit to match the unique needs of that experiment. One of the most interesting parts of my job is finding new solutions using everyday tools. Much like a chef tries to transform everyday ingredients into a menu for their customers, we transform things like vacuum cleaners into specialty gravel extractors. This menu gives you an idea of how we take the mundane and make it awesome in the name of science. Ok, we might sneak in some more exciting ingredients too, like dynamite.
The Man Made Maar project provides a range of intriguing tools and tricks for your experiment needs:

*The Garbage Bag Balloon and the flag pole both were the inspiration of our colleague Danny Bowman from the University of North Carolina. You can follow his twitter for more inspired ideas @dannycbowman .
**Inspiration for this post came from Lisa Zimmerman who tweets @UBGeology

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